When Is a Jew Not a Jew?

Question: According to Jewish tradition, is a Jew who believes in Jesus as Messiah still considered to be a Jew?

Answer: This question has received increasing attention in recent years due to the large number of Jewish people who are seeing in Jesus of Nazareth the One of whom the prophets spoke. Various anti-missionary groups and publications are loudly proclaiming, “When a Jew becomes a Christian, he is no longer a Jew!” This is done to accuse the Hebrew Christian of abandoning his people and heritage by joining “them,” i.e., the Gentiles. A reflection of this trend is the present legal position prevailing in Israel as regards immigrants. Any Jew can go to Israel and receive immediate citizenship under the Law of Return. A Jewish believer in Jesus, however, does not qualify for immediate citizenship, although he may apply for citizenship under the normal procedures. The reason given is that if a Jew is a Christian also, he has left his religion and adopted another one, and ceases to be a Jew!

Upon examining the history of Jewish tradition with regard to this matter, however, one discovers that this interpretation is novel and not in accordance with what classical Judaism has taught for centuries on the subject. Consider the following evidence:

1 In the Babylonian Talmud, the authoritative work on religious law and practice for Jewish people, there is a discussion in Sanhedrin 44a as to whether or not the family of the sinner, Achan (Josh. 7), was still part of the community of Israel. The accepted opinion was that of Rabbi Abba ben Zabda who said: “Even though they have sinned, they are still called Israel.” For centuries this decision of halakha (religious law) was applied to Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah.

2 The great medieval scholar Solomon ben Isaac, known as Rashi, issued a number of “responsa” on the subject of apostates and their legal standing in Judaism. He cited the above-mentioned Talmudic passage for his authority in stating, “As it is said in the Talmud (San. 44a), even though he has sinned, he is still a Jew. He is not to be separated from his status as a Jew. The law with regard to him is that he is completely a Jew. He is untrustworthy and suspect in religious matters, but he is still to be regarded as Jewish” (A Treasury of Responsa, pp. 17-22).

3 The Encyclopedia Judaica in its article on Apostasy states: “In Jewish religious law, it is technically impossible for a Jew [born to a Jewish mother or properly converted to Judaism] to change his religion. Even though a Jew undergoes the rites of admission to another religious faith he remains – as far as the halakha is concerned – a Jew, albeit a sinner (San. 44a)” (Vol. 3, p. 211).

In 135 A.D., the Jewish believer in Jesus was officially shunned by the community and declared unwelcome in the synagogue. Even when this took place, however, his Jewishness was never questioned.

All of this is nothing new to the reader of the New Testament. The early Jewish Christians never even raised the question about whether or not they were still Jews. The same Paul who professed to be a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5) before he met Jesus, resoundingly trumpeted the fact years later in Romans 11:1: “. . . I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin .” Then later, before an angry Jewish mob, he boldly declared, “I am verily a man who is a Jew . . .” (Acts 22:3). The striking fact about Paul’s experience is that although some Jewish leaders opposed him strongly, they never questioned his Jewishness!

Biblically defined, the Jews trace their heritage back to the twelve sons of Jacob. The Jews, therefore, are a people bound by an ancient heritage to the twelve tribes of Israel. Faith in Jesus as Messiah does not alter that relationship. The modern Hebrew Christian should feel no guilt that he has abandoned his Jewishness. On the contrary, he has affirmed his faith in the very source of Judaism – the message of the Hebrew Scriptures. That message is that God would one day send a Jewish Messiah, an “anointed one” who would be stricken for the Jewish people and become an offering for their sin (cf. Isa. 53:4-10).

By believing that message and responding to Jesus as his Messiah, a Jewish person does not become a “goy” (i.e., a Gentile). On the contrary, he joins a group of Jews who have accepted the Jewish Messiah foretold in the Jewish Scriptures.

How Jewish can you get?

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